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Perserverance Rover Provides Front-Row Seat To Landing

Since we began sending probes to the surface of Mars, our experience of their landings was a nail-biting silence, punctured only by a NASA Mission Control engineer announcing milestones in the spacecraft progress. That all changed with the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover filming its February 18 landing. Six of the 23 onboard commercial cameras shot high-definition footage of the supersonic descent—dubbed the “7 minutes of terror“—and first surface movements. Three cameras trained on the parachute, while another three videoed the descent stage, rover, and approaching ground. Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the Pasadena, California, facility that built the rover and manages the $2.7 billion mission, premiered its high-resolution video during the briefing. This marks the first time we’re able to watch a spacecraft land on another planet. “These images and videos are the stuff of our dreams,” said Mars 2020 entry, descent, and landing (EDL) lead engineer Allen Chen.

“I just couldn’t believe my eyes; the images were better than I could have imagined,” JPL’s Adam Nelessen said about his initial reaction to the footage. An EDL lead systems engineer, Nelessen focused on the EDL camera technology. “There is a lot that we can learn from the imagery. One of the best engineering outcomes is going to be recording the inflation of the parachute at a high frame rate. We’re going to learn just how well this thin piece of fabric is actually performing.”

This is also the first time EDL engineers have seen the landing process unfurl in its entirety, as they were only able to run tests in separate stages on Earth. The footage revealed that the EDL navigation system came to within 16 feet of its landing target. The video also gave a better sense of the debris that kicks up during landing, particularly as NASA looks to land increasingly heavier items on Mars.

“We worry about dust and sand confounding radar sensors and making our landing more difficult,” he adds. “So seeing what the dust environment and hazards are like in the area have really good engineering uses for us.” Plus, observing the landing site on approach offers a head start on how to best navigate the area to achieve the science objectives. More raw images of Mars can be found here.

Additionally, the rover has two onboard microphones for the first time. Sadly, a communications error between the device digitizing the analog sound and the computer storing the data prevented them from recording EDL sound. But they did pick up 11 mph gusts of wind on the surface, which also played during today’s briefing, and which you can listen to here.

Perseverance hit the Martian atmosphere at 12,000 mph, weathering nearly 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, and slowing to 160 mph before deploying a 70-foot-diameter parachute. Onboard navigation systems timed the parachute release with the spacecraft’s position to the landing site to steer it clear of hazardous terrain. Retro-rockets firing groundwards helped the craft decelerate to 1.5 mph by the time the sky-crane maneuver gently lowered the rover to a safe spot on Jezero Crater, an ancient lake bed that may have once harbored life. The landing was so difficult, demanding some two million lines of flight code, that NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen celebrated its success by gleefully ripping up the mission contingency plans during the post-landing briefing.

“Perseverance is the most advanced mission humans have ever sent to the red planet’s surface,” said NASA Planetary Science Division director Lori Glaze. (Glaze and the remaining NASA officials in this story spoke during virtual January 27 and February 17 press conferences.) “One of its main purposes is to seek out signs of past life on Mars.” Other aspects, such as monitoring environmental conditions, will be “paramount to increasing our understanding of how to protect future human explorers.”

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